Just like the rest of us, professional and college baseball players can't just run out on the field at the beginning of the season and play hard. They can get injured just as easily as you if they don't follow a pre-training fitness plan.
"The season is long for amateur and professional baseball players, and that's why we set up fitness plans for players in the preseason -- to avoid injury later," says Rob Woodall, assistant athletic trainer for baseball and rehabilitation coordinator for Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.
"The most likely injury in training for baseball is in the shoulder, whether you're a pitcher or playing a field position," says Dave Werner, head athletic trainer for baseball at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "What we tend to see is that about 30% of baseball injuries are in the quadriceps and hamstring area of the legs, but at least 70% of the injuries are in the shoulder."
Throwing the ball, says Goodall, sends a tremendous amount of twisting force, called torque, into the area of the shoulder called the rotator cuff.
Werner and his colleagues prepare their players for that kind of stress with general fitness training and some special shoulder exercises that are specific to sports with overhead arm movements, such as swimming and tennis.
But a solid training regimen will first focus on four fitness areas, say Werner and Goodall. Here is their general recipe for injury avoidance on the field:
The first thing to get going on is a cardiovascular fitness plan, says Goodall. That begins with 20 to 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise every day, such as jogging, bike riding or using the Stairmaster.
"Once we've established a solid base of cardiovascular fitness, which I like to think of as the base of a fitness pyramid, then we start working toward the more specific exercises that form the top of the pyramid," says Werner. "That narrower training includes sprints, starting with 400-meter exercises and then working up to shorter and faster exercises, such as the 200- or even 100-meter sprint."
This includes 10 to 15 minutes of warm up exercises and pre- and post-game stretching activities.
"This stretching doesn't have to be anything fancy, but it needs to be done," says Werner. "A lot of people don't put enough effort into pre- and post-game stretching. But these stretching exercises, especially post-game, are really important to keep those stressed areas flexible and strong. That's some of the best protection against injury you can get."
Again, like the stretching, this is the same type of strength training that anyone would do for an overall, total-body workout.
"Baseball players concentrate on upper-body strength for throwing power," says Woodall. "But just like anyone else in training, they usually lift weights three or four times a week with a day off between sessions to allow the body to rebuild and rest."
"If you start drinking when you're thirsty, you're already behind the curve. Here in Florida, we have to contend with extremely hot weather, so hydration is something we focus on, but it is important for sports in all climates."
Just as important is a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, he says.
"Our teams has pre- and post-game meals together to get good nutrition, and we work with nutritionists to make sure the players are getting the kinds of foods they need."
Protect That All-Important Shoulder
"One thing we do is plyometrics to improve shoulder strength in players," says Goodall. This involves throwing a 4-pound ball against a large net rebounder, which returns the ball to the player.
Werner's players, including the position players, add a special series of exercises to their general workout. This is called the "Jobe's Rotator Cuff Series," and, as the name suggests, the exercises are designed to protect the shoulder structure known as the rotator cuff, which consists of the muscles and tendons that surround the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) and hold it in the shoulder joint, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. There are common signs of a rotator cuff injury, or tear:
- Recurrent pain, particularly with overhead activities.
- Pain at night on the affected side.
- Muscle weakness, especially when attempting to lift the arm.
- Grating or cracking sounds when the arm is moved.
"Using very light weights and special rubber tubing that provides resistance, the players do three sets of 10 repetitions each of these exercises," says Werner. "This takes about 10 to 15 minutes to run through. It hits muscles in the shoulder area that don't ordinarily get targeted in other weight training. This isn't about lifting huge greater and greater amounts of weight, it's more about strengthening these little-used muscles that hold the shoulder together."
A good trainer at a gymnasium or a physical therapist should be able to help you work on developing these same muscles that baseball players spend so much time on.
"If you pay attention to these four stages of health, even a weekend warrior who plays baseball, tennis or swims should be fine," says Werner.
John Casey is a freelance writer based in New York City.